Sea Lions - Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions but Were Afraid to Ask
Record Label: Slumberland
Release Date: November 22, 2011
Even if you knew nothing about Sea Lions-- and given that Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions but Were Afraid to Ask is their first major release, you'd certainly be forgiven-- you might take their presence on the venerable Slumberland label as a hint that their music is probably some form of playful guitar-pop informed by traces of C-86 and Paisley Underground. That assumption is totally accurate, though unlike labelmates like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Sea Lions place significantly less importance on singalong hooks. Instead, their focus is on... well, I'm not exactly sure, and that turns out to be something of a downfall for an album that isn't without its aesthetic pleasures but ultimately lacks something to truly hold on to.
The album opens in earnest with "I Should Be Sleeping", a song that possesses the fast-paced ringing strums of R.E.M.'s early albums, although Michael Stipe's idiosyncratic vocals have been traded for those of Adrian Pillado, whose deep brood is akin to that of The Wedding Present's David Gedge. While his rather monotone delivery largely works for most of the album, allowing the guitar jangle to propel the songs, a tune like "Grown Up" underscores the limited degree of expression his style allows for. Lyrically, it's like an artless version of a National song, but while the also low-register Matt Berninger conveys so much world-weariness in each note, Pillado leaves us feeling nothing.
Despite the occasional flat execution, Sea Lions' knack for constructing timeless melodies is undeniable, and the Golden Oldies era is obviously a pervading influence on the album. "I Don't Wanna Go Out" is vintage prom-pop circa 1960 without the slick-haired teen idol singing lead. "I Loved Her So Much" carries the retro-fied vibe of Cults minus the sprightly female vocal. There's a corresponding lyrical simplicity that's rather endearing ("When you're feeling sad and blue, I'll make the sun shine for you", from "My Girl") in a landscape filled with empty philosophizing adorned with artifice.
The main problem with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions but Were Afraid to Ask, besides its unwieldy title, is that it doesn't reserve any space for its tersely-built songs to breathe. The hooks on "Tell You" and "I Don't Want to Go Out" border on pop brilliance, but the songs seem to end just when you're about ready to start humming along. As a result, while Sea Lions blow through fifteen songs in less than a half-hour, it's startling how nice they all sound as they fly by, and even more so how little remains in memory even a few seconds after the last sweetly chiming note fades into silence. So indulge the Sea Lions, and don't be afraid to ask; the record is worth the quick, enjoyable listen. Just don't be surprised if there really isn't that much to know after all.